Do you really want to buy a vehicle for your teen that makes them overconfident about their driving abilities?
I get called for advice whenever a friend (or a friend of a friend) needs to buy a car for their high school-aged child. Buying a car for a teenager is a big decision made more difficult by pressures to balance safety, reliability and coolness.
First and foremost, I’m of the belief that no teenager deserves a cool car. A person’s first car sets how they view and treat the privilage of owning and driving an automobile. Giving a teen an expensive new car or cool used car can seriously skew their view of the value of basic transportation, as well as mask their understanding of how hard most people have to work to afford a car.
Most importantly, a nice car does not communicate that as a teen, there is a lot to learn about how to drive safely. You wouldn’t buy a beginning guitarist a Les Paul, a first-time golfer a set of Ping clubs or a Bar Mitzvah boy an Armani suit, so a recently licensed driver doesn’t need a BMW.
When I was a lad my first car was a red (with rust and oxidation) 1977 Buick Le Sabre with red vinyl seats and a radio that would cut in and out with the turn signal. The Buick left me stranded at least five or six times in the first year, so my uncle donated his 1977 Chrysler LeBaron to me. In a vain attempt to make it less geeky, I had the light-tan exterior painted evening blue by Earl Scheib,because with the tan leather interior it matched the colors of a Ferrari 308 GTS I had seen on television.
That Chrysler left me stranded multiple times, as well. I even had to call in an emergency ride from my cousin to drive me to my last day of high school after it failed to start.
Consequently, I have appreciated every car I’ve owned. I’ve always been a careful driver — with no accidents or violations on my record. By the time I purchased my first sports car, I was able to resist opening it up on public streets. On the track I was responsible enough to keep the it within the limits set by the car and my skills.
In contrast, my wife’s parents bought her a brand new Camaro for her sixteenth birthday, because they felt her 4.0 GPA somehow made her deserving of a new car. She bonked it into the garage twice in six months, so they took it away, replacing it with a brand new Ford Bronco. She called the punishment “asinine” and complained bitterly that her parents were unreasonable.
To this day, my wife treats her car like someone else will soon replace it, whereas even before I was an automotive journalist, I handled cars (especially the reliable ones) with care and respect. Of course, these are just two data points, rather than a statistical survey. (And I will be sleeping on the couch tonight.)
In all honesty, parents often find themselves in a situation where they project their own needs into the vehicles they purchase for their teens. Teens do not need expensive, luxurious, high performance vehicles. They need safe, reliable transportation that will reinforce good driving habits, as well as teach the importance of proper vehicle maintenance.
When looking for a specific car the only factors parents should consider are:
Buy something safe, period. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains data indicating crashworthiness. Spend less time looking at the ratings based on static tests – the annual driver’s death rates studies and injury, accident and theft loss reports are the absolute best for identifying the safest cars. I also suggest looking at multiple years’ worth of reports to identify the occasional anomaly. Sometimes cool cars are safe, but not usually. Would you really rather have a cool dead child than a living one in a not-so-cool car?
The safest vehicles are large four-door sedans with side-impact airbags and vehicle stability control (aka VDS, yaw control, Active Handling, Stability Management.) No matter what you’ve read, heard or believe, SUVs and pickup trucks are not safe. Teens are more likely to be involved in single-vehicle accidents where speed is a factor. SUVs are more likely to be involved in single-vehicle accidents where speed is a factor. Don’t make the mistake of putting a teen behind the wheel of a SUV or pickup that handles worse than a sedan, takes longer to stop, is more likely roll in an accident, and more likely to kill occupants wearing seatbelts. Heck, even if you put a good driver in a SUV, they still battle Miata-sized blind spots.
Teens feel overconfident in SUVs and pickups, causing their egos write checks that their driving abilities and physics can’t cash.
Furthermore, the more seats in a vehicle, the more likely it is that the child will be put in situations where the car is dangerously overloaded. A Honda Pilot or Ford Explorer can seat seven, but maximum weight isn’t much more than five average weight occupants with some extra bags. Since the Pilot and Explorer are nearly identical in length to an Accord, third row occupants essentially sit in the area reserved for the trunk in the Accord, meaning in a rear impact, the force either crumples the seating area or is transferred throughout the entire body. (That’s just basic physics!)
Small SUVs, like sports cars, are generally about as safe as Russian roulette with six bullets. No teen should be put behind the wheel of a car that will roll during an emergency lane change, nor should they be given the keys to a sports car capable of tripling the legal speed limit on county roads.
Reliability / Running Costs
Check JD Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study for how certain types of vehicles hold up. Buying a car requires that one understands the total cost of ownership – which means the cost of initial purchase + insurance + fuel + upkeep. An old Range Rover can be cheap to buy but insane to repair, as are Volkswagens, Volvos, Saabs, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. Parts prices can vary wildly, and even duplicating an ignition key can cost anywhere from three dollars to $350.
How will the car be used and for how long? If the car just needs to last through a couple years of high school and then be thrown away when the child attends college, this opens up opportunities to buy well maintained high mileage cars. If the car needs to last many years, a lower mileage vehicle makes more sense. Also, if the driver won’t be going skiing or battling frequent winter snow, there’s absolutely no reason to buy something with four or all-wheel drive.
No matter what vehicle you consider, you should request service receipts and have the vehicle inspected by a reputable mechanic. Even if the car has been maintained, regular service items like timing belts, shocks/struts, brakes all need to be addressed at some point, so ensure you are not paying top dollar for a vehicle that will soon need major scheduled maintenance.
With that all said, here are my top picks for teen drivers:
Honda Accord and Toyota Camry sedans — Here are two cars that are safe, reliable and won’t get your teen in trouble with the fashion police. They are well-designed, comfortable, easy to work on and offer cheap replacement parts. If you can afford it, buy one with side impact air bags.
Accords and Camrys can go 300,000 miles, so don’t let mileage scare you. More important is to see the service history to ensure that the car has been well maintained. Six cylinder cars are quite peppy and still get great MPG. Four cylinder cars are the best for younger drivers with heavy accelerator feet.
Subaru Wagons – Instead of buying an SUV, grab one of Subaru’s many wagons. Over the years, I’ve been impressed by Subaru’s ability to create cars that simply keep running. Since they tend to be heavy, and the engines aren’t that powerful, it results in cars that won’t get kids in too much trouble. (Just stay away from the WRX!) All wheel drive means awesome wet and snow traction, but low centers of gravity give better handling and security than traditional SUVs.
I’ve had one friend walk away from a roll-over in a Subaru. Another four friends of mine were absolutely unscathed when the Subie they were in veered into a raspberry field and crashed through a series of vertically positioned railroad ties.
Sure Subies will creak and rattle like an antique house with wooden floors, but they’ll battle-on for years after Explorers, Expeditions, Tahoes and Durangos have all bitten the dust. They are easy to fix, and parts are very reasonable.
Big Buicks — They’re not the most reliable, cool or impressive, but the resale values of the Park Avenue and Le Sabre are so low that you can buy a slightly used one for a song. (This makes it worth all the complaining your teen will do when you bring home a Buick.) Parts prices are cheap. The cars are a breeze to work on. There are some inherent build issues, like plastic intake manifolds that are prone to leaking on the 3800 V6 engines, plastic interior parts that break and brake calipers that seem to require resurfacing every 15,000 miles, but these cars are still better built than Chevys and Fords…plus safer than any Volvo. Throw a set of snow tires on these front-wheel-drive beasts and their spacious trunks make for perfect transportation up to the ski hill.
As for cars to specifically avoid — here are my top ten worst cars to buy for a teen.
10- Dodge/Plymouth Neon: I’ll admit that they are very fun to drive, are easy to park and are not bad looking in comparison to other econoboxes, but Neons are so horribly built that owners usually carry monthly bus passes as backup.
9-Volkswagen Jetta: For the same reasons as the Neon, but with parts costs that make owners think they’ve bought a Porsche.
8-Acura Integra: A great car — so great that probabilities state that your teen will likely find it missing from the parking lot. It’ll be found as a shell only, with all the parts already headed to unscrupulous parts dealers.
7-Anything from Scion: I’ll admit that the jury is still out on Scion, but for some reason, all the models are near the bottom of the heap in their respective class for safety. This could be a demographics thing — meaning that the type of people that buy Scions are high risk drivers. It could be, however, that the cars are poorly designed for accident situations.
6- VW Vans: To quote Car Talk’s Click and Clack: “those things are deathtraps.” They are too slow to merge safely on a highway, too top heavy for evasive moves, and crush like a soda can in a wreck. They also cost a fortune to maintain. Plus, do your really want your teen to have a bed in the back of their vehicle?
5- Classic Cars: I like old cars and have logged several thousand miles in old pony, muscle and sports cars over the last decade, but 30-plus year old cars are not reliable or safe enough to serve as a teen’s daily transport. Crumple zones didn’t hit the domestic-built cars until the 1980s. Old brakes are easy to lock. Rear-wheel-drive plus high power means tail-happy dynamics in the wet. And those old non-inertia seat belts have a terrible habit of breaking collarbones.
4- Jeep Liberty and Wrangler: Cheaply made (is there a louder, more uncomfortable ride than a Wrangler?) but more importantly, these vehicles sit too high for such a short wheelbase. When the Liberty debuted, Autoweek magazine rolled one simply trying to measure times through a low-speed slalom.
3- Ford Explorer: Old Explorers killed occupants who wore their seatbelts. Newer ones try to pack seven occupants into a package the same size as an Accord — and still there are cries from watchdog groups about the SUV’s ability to handle routine safety maneuvers.
2- Suzuki Areo and Suzuki Forenza: Not only are people extremely likely to have an accident in an Aero or Forenza, they are more likely to require medical attention than in almost any other sedan. Cheaply made, so not safe.
1- Chevy Camaro / Pontiac Firebird / Ford Mustang V8: Why you’d ever want to give your child the keys to one of the cars that kills more teens per year (normalized for the number of registered vehicles of each type,) than any other, I’m not sure. These cars are a case study in demographics: simply being an owner of a Camaro/Firebird or Mustang GT simply puts one in a group that tends to exhibit a lack of maturity necessary to drive one safely. These cars seem to make kids do stupid things…heck they make adults do stupid things, and they have more sense than teens.
Have a question about a specific vehicle? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I’ll reply with my analysis.